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James Weldon Johnson first found fame as a music comedy librettist on Broadway. This was at the turn of the century. By the end of World War One the cosmopolitan Johnson had behind him experiences an American Bohemia which predated Greenwich Village. The writing of one of the nation's most notable works on race passing the authorship of the Negro National Anthem nearly a decade in the U.S. counselor service first and then as well and then in Nicaragua. Since 1913 he had been assistant editor to The New York age. He was the highest ranking black man in the end of the ICP and in one thousand twenty he would become the head of that organization its executive secretary. And yet as of the end of World War One his greatest achievements lay ahead of him. It was his contributions to the Harlem Renaissance which have immortalized James Weldon Johnson. In one thousand twenty two he produced one of the first
anthologies of Afro-American poetry in one thousand twenty five game the first of many editions of The Book of American Negro spirituals. His brother Rosamond arranged the music and James wrote a descriptive introduction. It still stands as one of the most impressive treatments of the beauty of spirituals. In popularizing the spirituals Johnson was seeking a new definition of Negro culture one which evaluated black artistic expression in its own terms rather than in the values of white culture. He hoped the black-American would come to appreciate the beauty of his own literary and musical forms the richness of metaphor and mastery of mood and spirit. It is in this. Johnson was eminently successful for today. And in fact for the past 40 years the GRO college and high school commencement exercises have included some coed reading Johnson's creation or go down death for one of the other.
Poetic sermons collected under the title God's trombones. And the same commencements are as likely to close with the singing of Lift Every Voice and Sing the national anthem written at the turn of the century in Johnson's Broadway days. The list of his contributions to my group cultures indeed long. There is this poem of Negro folk humor Saint Peter relates an incident at Resurrection Day. It tells of the various Ku Klux Klan or American Legion Diya are 100 percent hers who decide to arrive at the pearly gates leading the Unknown Soldier. Of course when the kleagle Xand clavicles get the unknown hero's tomb open he rises up in all his black skin magistrate which creates great consternation since the good white Americans want to lynch and re bury him but wonder how one kills an immortal at Judgement Day. Born in Jacksonville Florida in 1871. Johnson received his early education in this hometown and went on to Atlanta University
like William Pickens at Talladega and Robert S. Abbott Hampton Johnson became a member of his college's touring gospel group. After graduation he taught school for a while in Jacksonville and studied law on the side. He passed the Florida bar but his career was not at law. In 1900 he and his brother Rosamond journeyed to New York and began a notable career as a writing team for musicals. In 1906 they were a friend of Booker T Washington James obtained his first position in the councilor service. For many years he maintained close correspondence with Booker T Washington even though he had always had a strong accent on civil rights which ran against the grain of the Washington philosophy. The ACP offered Johnson the post as national field secretary in one thousand sixteen. And many in the GRO later saw this as a strategic move to bring into the association a man with Tuskegee and
ties that's bridging the gap between the two forces in Negril life. The Washington Group and the end of the NAACP. Johnson's activities and artistic and literary circles were by no means at the expense of his work with the end of the paper. He was executive secretary of the Association for 10 years. His many efforts in its behalf included a secret trip to Haiti in 1920 to investigate atrocities committed by American troops in their conquest of the black republic. The U.S. occupied Haiti for nearly 15 years in the guise of stabilizing Haitian banking and protecting foreign citizens from physical harm. Johnson met with many Haitian officials backwoods farmers dock workers and held clandestine talks with spokesmen for the anti Yankee guerrillas. He was able to document a long list of military barbarities committed by the US
Marines. Returning to America here arranged for a meeting with RIP Republican presidential candidate William G Harding Johnson wanted Harding to make a campaign issue out of the imperialism indulged in by Wilson's Democratic administration. The future president was more than willing to make political hay of the atrocities. That is until the elections after which the intervention in Haiti was conveniently whitewashed in governmental investigations. The dire anti-lynching bill came to the floor of Congress in one thousand twenty two. And Johnson became a human dynamo in the nation's capitol pigeonholing congressmen and senators attempting to get them committed to its passage. The bill passed the House 230 to 119 but died in the Senate of a Southern filibuster and. Half hearted ness on the part of its alleged Senate promoters. The fight for the anti-lynching bill was a failure only in part the long debate in Congress got the issue before the general public as never before. The rationalizations
of senators pertaining to constitutional problems of a federal anti-lynching law are refuted with Johnson's argument that lynching was not mere murder a matter for state authorities but was much more than murder. It was an incidence of an arche of a local mob disabling civil government and establishing itself as the state. As such the actions of lynch mobs were surely applicable under the Constitution's insistence that the federal government must assure the States a Republican Form of Government. Johnson's militancy was that of aggressive liberalism toward post-World War One black radicalism Johnson was skeptical untag mystic as a writer of The New York age editorial page he panned the Garvey ites and the Harlem street corner socialist as well. In a way however Johnson considered himself among the radicals in his view the ICP was a radical organization a radicalism of the
13th century. He explained the association was fighting the fight of the English at the time of the Magna Carta input quote in parts of the country. Say for example darkest Mississippi. It was and still is actually radical to hark back to the demands made by the barons on King John and insist upon the right of Negroes to enjoy the common security of life property upon their right to one charge of crime to a fair trial by a jury of their peers before a duly constituted court of justice upon the application for them of the principle no taxation without representation. They grow radicalism which went no farther than this as time without number. Been met with violence and even death. It is to Johnson so I might say to his credit. That as much as he derided socialist a nationalist he was still militant enough to be in recurrent trouble with his superior on the New York age the very conservative Fred
Moore the publisher and editor in chief. The conservative more objected to Johnson's strong stand for civil liberties and integration in 1923 the built up tension forced Johnson to resign from the paper. In 1930 Dr. Thomas Elsa Jones offered Johnson a chair of creative literature at Fisk University along with liberal research time. He accepted and retired from his end of the lacy peepholes to the cloisters of Jubilee hall. He had eight productive years at Fisk before as death in an automobile accident. He produced a black Manhattan history of Harlem which included one of the first lengthy treatments of the garbage movement and gave an inside view of the literary renaissance. Johnson was noted for parties and social gatherings with all sorts of artistic literary figures of the day white and black alike.
His home was a place of some of the first big artists integrated artistic affairs and Harlem of the Renaissance. Johnson brought out one thousand thirty three. His autobiography along this way a valuable source book on the political and artistic personalities of Afro America. So many of whom Johnson had come to know intimately contemporaries remembered Johnson as a gracious and warm personality and in his autobiography there is indirect evidence of this in his descriptions of the usually thought of as austere and distant Dr. Dubois and Theodore Dreiser. Both of whom Johnson found rather jolly. Which probably says more about Johnson's ability to put people at ease than it does of the personality of Dubois her drys are. In Johnson's later years his sympathetic demeanor was carried over from the social sphere to politics in a little volume. Negro Americans. What
now. He analyzed the nationalist communist and integration as points of view as each having its powerful appeal in its own right. But of the various possibilities for the Negro he chose the liberal integration this path. Not that there was anything particularly detrimental in the other alternatives. They simply would not work. Johnson wished the communist experiment in Russia well and hoped it would succeed but he doubted if America would ever accept a communist form of government. And he questioned if communism per se would end racism in white America. He granted that nationalist separatist programs had a powerful appeal among the masses but the idea of Exodus was an impossibility. And as for retrenchment into the ghetto so as to build a power source from which to eventually fight for integration. Johnson believed the hazards and problems of this approach were at least as pressing as the problems of fighting directly for civil rights and integration and therefore the surest path lay in fighting for full
James Weldon Johnson (Episode 13 of 14)
Black power origins
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Pacifica Radio Archives (North Hollywood, California)
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Ted Vincent discusses the life and work of poet, historian and social critic James Weldon Johnson, paying particular attention to his ten years as National Secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
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Race and Ethnicity
Johnson, James Weldon, 1871-1938; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; African Americans--Civil rights--History
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Chicago: “James Weldon Johnson (Episode 13 of 14); Black power origins,” Pacifica Radio Archives, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 20, 2020,
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APA: James Weldon Johnson (Episode 13 of 14); Black power origins. Boston, MA: Pacifica Radio Archives, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from